LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Perhaps one of the most impressive things that John Calipari has done at the University of Kentucky has been to get elite young players to buy into a high level of defensive commitment almost immediately upon arriving on campus.

Defense is usually the last thing that comes around for freshmen. But at Kentucky, Calipari has convinced — not all, necessarily, but a number of high-profile recruits to apply their athleticism on the defensive end.

Certainly, that was the case on Tuesday night against Michigan State in Madison Square Garden. Kentucky was longer, more athletic, and in general just tougher on the defensive end, and the Spartans couldn’t respond. Malik Monk hit 7 of 11 three-pointers, the Wildcats’ three starting guards outscored Michigan State’s entire team and the Wildcats emerged with a 69-48 win in the Champions Classic that likely will elevate them to No. 1 in the nation after Duke’s loss to Kansas in the nightcap.

“I’m actually a little embarrassed,” Michigan State Tom Izzo said. “I felt like we competed defensively for the most part, we just didn’t do anything offensively. We looked like a team that was an AAU team; just went one-on-one, didn't move the ball, got frustrated. I think some of it was that we were a little fatigued (having returned from a trip to Hawaii) and I think John did a hell of a job. I do think that is one of his better defensive teams.”

Kentucky shot just 38.3 percent, but held Michigan State to 32.8 percent shooting, didn’t allow a single Spartan to score in double figures and forced 20 Michigan State turnovers (led by nine from freshman guard Miles Bridges) for a 24-12 edge in points off turnovers.

“We’ve gotten better,” Calipari said. “But we’re still not where we need to be. What happened is these guys took some pride defensively. And some of it – Michigan State, they run some great stuff and they [isolate] and do things that forced us to prepare beyond where we are. In other words, we’re playing elbows and blocks – that’s how we played Bridges – so that when he drove, there was somebody in his lap, which is why he turned it over. But, we hadn’t worked on it – we did it in one day. But that shows how smart these guys are. Our pick-and-roll defense still stinks, like they were going right down the middle for layups. We’ve got to go back and look at that and figure out what we do there. And we got outrebounded again.”

A few quick takeaways:

1). MONK TAKES THREE-POINT VOW. This UK team had made just 9 of 34 three-point tries coming into the game, and no individual had more than three. But Monk hit his first three, a couple from the right wing on the break to get going, and helped key a 14-2 run that put the Wildcats up to stay, at 26-14, midway through the first half.

Monk finished with 23 points to lead the Wildcats in a game that otherwise was played in the bruising style preferred by Michigan State.

“I have to give Monk credit,” Izzo said. “He was three for, I think, 13 (from three-point range) going in and he hit some big threes early unguarded on the break, which they’re very, very good at, then just going going and goes 7 for 11. If you look at our game plan, we wanted to somewhat contain De’Aaron Fox, and I thought we did an OK job. Our problems were turnovers and the offense.”

Calipari said he could see the big night from Monk coming.

“He had an unbelievable shootaround today,” Calipari said. “I’ve done this for thirty years. We had two other players on the team that had so-so shootarounds and, guess what? They had so-so games. And it was a great lesson because getting him and De’Aaron to not be casual — these guys play casual, they practice casual and that’s what we’ve got to teach them. You can’t be. You’ve got to have another habit. They’ve got to create a habit of really getting after it. Malik Monk had one of the best shootarounds that any of my players have had in the past few years and I expected he would go in and go play well.”

Of all the freshmen, Monk was the least fazed by the Madison Square Garden hype in New York City.

“Coming from Arkansas, I was the top player in Arkansas — I mean, every game was packed for me,” he said. “I had a lot of adversity because I committed to Kentucky. But I was used to a lot of fans and all that stuff.”

2). BRISCOE’S STEADY LEADERSHIP. Isaiah Briscoe has become the most important player on this Kentucky team, and not just because he has dramatically improved his perimeter shooting. He knows when to take the team in hand, when to assert himself offensively, and how to establish the defensive tone and example Calipari wants.

Playing close to his Newark, N.J., home, Briscoe had 21 points and four rebounds in 35 minutes. Maybe the biggest indicator of his turnaround has been his performance at the free-throw line, where he was a liability a year ago, but is shooting 75 percent (16-20) this season.

“You know, what I’m proud of is that everybody who watched him in high school can’t believe he defends and rebounds the way he is,” Calipari said. “The people who came in our gym a year ago can’t believe he’s the same guy. He’s the first one in the gym and he’s the last one to leave everyday. Him and Bam (Adebayo) are bumping heads as they leave last. He’s also taking care of business and doing all the other stuff. This is all new to all these guys. The structure that we have, the standard that we’re held to as a program and individual players – and that’s – you’re on a mission. He’s way more mature. He’s way more comfortable in how we’re playing. He has a will to win. And the good news for him, as his career goes on, everything is becoming position-less. It just is.”

Briscoe acknowledged that playing close to home was added motivation.

“A lot of my fan base is from New York and this place has made me who I am,” Briscoe said.
“So, it feels good to get back out there in front of my fans and perform well.”

Fox added 12 points for the Wildcats, to give the starting backcourt 56 of Kentucky’s 69 points while taking 45 of their 60 shots.

3). A WORK IN PROGRESS IN THE PAINT. Freshman Bam Adebayo continues to struggle with foul trouble. He had four Tuesday night and finished with just 6 points on 2-3 shooting. He also had five turnovers and five rebounds in 26 minutes.

Michigan State, a much smaller team than Kentucky, played the Wildcats to a 24-24 draw in the paint and outrebounded them 44-40. 

4). NOTES. Monk became the third UK freshman to make at least seven three-pointers in a regular-season non-conference game, joining Doron Lamb and Jamal Murray. . . . Fox has made all 21 of his free-throw attempts this season, and with six assists has led UK in assists in all three of its games. . . . Kentucky is 4-2 in the six-year history of the Champions Classic. . . . UK is 36-13 all-time in Madison Square Garden, including 24-10 in the original building and 12-3 in the current arena. 

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